Opinion Putin just backtracked under pressure. That’s a hopeful sign for Ukraine.

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By Max Boot

Columnist |
November 7, 2022 at 12:01 p.m. EST


Vladimir Putin’s power rests on the impression that he is invincible and implacable — that the Russian president can’t be defeated and will stop at nothing to achieve his objectives.
The first myth has already been dispelled in Ukraine, where the Russian military has suffered heavy losses without coming close to achieving his ultimate objective of destroying Ukrainian independence. But the second myth lives on: It is leading some in the West to argue that the United States should use its leverage to force Kyiv to the bargaining table, because the Ukrainians will never succeed in regaining all of their lost territory. This pessimistic argument is premised on the assumption that Putin will just keep escalating indefinitely with more troops and more weapons — even nuclear weapons if necessary.


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But in recent weeks we have seen evidence that suggest Putin is a rational actor who is perfectly capable of backtracking if it’s in his interest to do so. On Oct. 29, Putin announced he was suspending a deal with Turkey and the United Nations to allow ships full of Ukrainian grain to transit the Black Sea. Putin has long been unhappy with this arrangement because it throws a lifeline to Ukraine, which has been able to export more than 9 million tons of food since Aug. 1. As his excuse to leave the deal, he cited a Ukrainian drone attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet.



Yet, on Wednesday, Putin basically said never mind — Russia will abide by the grain deal after all. His transparent excuse was that he had received assurances that Ukraine will not use the humanitarian corridors for food shipments to attack Russian forces — something it wasn’t doing anyway.


The real reason? It looks as though Putin buckled to pressure from Turkey and, more broadly, from developing nations that rely on Ukrainian grain to feed their people. Putin didn’t want to risk the opprobrium that he would face from sinking cargo ships carrying grain to feed some of the world’s poorest people.
Putin has also backtracked on his threats to use nuclear weapons. After months of threatening that Russia would use every weapon at its disposal, Putin on Oct. 27 denied having any intention of going nuclear. “We see no need for that,” Putin said. “There is no point in that, neither political, nor military.”



We shouldn’t attach too much significance to his words since he often says one thing and does another. (Recall his repeated denials that he was planning to invade Ukraine.) But it is nevertheless telling that he would feel compelled to say something that relaxes the pressure on Ukraine and its allies.
It is probably no coincidence that Chinese President Xi Jinping has been increasingly vocal in his opposition to the Russian use of nuclear weapons. On Friday, during a meeting in Beijing with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Xi said, “The international community should ... jointly oppose the use or threats to use nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis in Eurasia.” Xi did not mention Russia, but his message to Putin was clear: Back off the nukes, tovarishch.
There’s no secret as to why Putin would be sensitive to the views of Ankara and Beijing: Just follow the money! The New York Times just ran some very helpful charts showing how Russia’s international trade flows have changed since the invasion.



Russian trade with the United States and most European nations is way down, but Russian trade with China is up 64 percent and with Turkey 198 percent, because those countries are not enforcing sanctions. Trade with India — another nation trying to triangulate between Russia and the West — is up 310 percent. That means those countries have a lot of leverage with Russia. Putin is so wary of offending them he is willing to backtrack on his Black Sea grain embargo and his threats of nuclear force.
In short, Putin is not some Slavic Terminator who will keep advancing no matter what. That doesn’t mean that Ukraine can strike a deal with him now, because he clearly has not given up hopes of achieving his objectives by force — at a minimum, the annexation of four Ukrainian provinces. But it does suggest that the war won’t last forever, and that a more acceptable settlement might be achievable if Russia suffers more battlefield defeats.
Putting pressure on the Ukrainians to make concessions is not only morally offensive — they are victims of unprovoked aggression — but also pointless, because only Putin can end the war. Premature Ukrainian concessions would just embolden the Russian dictator.






Instead of squeezing Kyiv, the Biden administration should be doing its utmost to persuade New Delhi, Ankara and Beijing to influence Putin to end his unprovoked invasion. That could mean relaxing some U.S. pressure on China — for example, lifting the tariffs imposed by former president Donald Trump — as a reward for Xi’s help. We need to prioritize our foreign policy objectives, and, while China is the greater long-term danger, Russia is the more immediate threat.

 
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